A Psychological Approach

Psychological Criticism: This approach reflects the effect that modern psychology has had upon both literature and literary criticism. Fundamental figures in psychological criticism include Sigmund Freud, whose “psychoanalytic theories changed our notions of human behavior by exploring new or controversial areas like wish-fulfillment, sexuality, the unconscious, and repression” as well as expanding our understanding of how “language and symbols operate by demonstrating their ability to reflect unconscious fears or desires”; and Carl Jung, whose theories about the unconscious are also a key foundation of Mythological Criticism. Psychological criticism has a number of approaches, but in general, it usually employs one (or more) of three approaches:

  1. An investigation of “the creative process of the artist: what is the nature of literary genius and how does it relate to normal mental functions?”
  2. The psychological study of a particular artist, usually noting how an author’s biographical circumstances affect or influence their motivations and/or behavior.
  3. The analysis of fictional characters using the language and methods of psychology.



The aim of psychological study folds in three natures. Foremost, the objective of understanding behavior, that is by defining factors that combine the development and expression of behavior. Secondly, the psychologist striving to develop procedure for the accurate prediction of behavior. Thirdly, psychology aims at developing techniques that will permit the control of behavior that is, way of “ shaping”  or course of psychological development through manipulating those basic factors to the growth and the expression of behavior.

The psychological approach leads most directly to a substantial amplification of the meaning of a literary work. When we discuss psychology and its place in a literary work, we are primarily studying the author’s imagination. As all literary works are based on some kind of experience, and as all authors are human, we are necessarily caught up in the wide spectrum of emotional problems (caused by experience). Not all recourse of psychology in the analysis of literary work is undertaken to arrive at the understanding of the literary work, to a certain extent, we must be willing to use psychology to discuss probability.



The psychological approach is a unique form of criticism in that it draws upon psychological theories in its interpretation of a text. Linking the psychological and literary worlds bring a kind of scientific aspect into literary criticism. The three branches of psychological criticism that we have discussed in class are psychoanalytic criticism, trauma and cognitive criticism.

The first approach that we have discussed was psychoanalytic criticism. According to our Dictionary of Critical Theory, psychoanalysis is, “1) a discipline founded on a procedure for the investigation of mental processes that are otherwise inaccessible because they are unconscious; 2) a therapeutic method for the treatment of neurotic disorders; and 3) a body of psychological data evolving into a new scientific discipline.” Freud believes that society sublimates, or channels its unconscious through the creative process. This is where literature comes into play. When criticizing Emily Dickinson’s poetry a psychoanalytic approach can be utilized. Take for example Dickinson’s poem There’s a Certain Slant of Light:

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
‘Til the seal, despair,-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.

The psychoanalytic critic would look of the unconscious desires sublimated by Dickinson in her poem. In the psychoanalyst’s mind everyone’s actions are governed by sexual/pleasure seeking motives. Dickinson would have these desires and since they cannot be expressed in society, she must sublimate them in her creative outlet, poetry. For example, with Freud’s theories in mind, we might draw the conclusion that Dickinson got a sexual pleasure from pain.

The second approach of psychological criticism discussed in class is trauma. According to Caruth’s article Trauma and Experience: Introduction”, “…in trauma the greatest confrontation with reality may also occur as an absolute numbing to it, that immediacy, paradoxically enough, may take the form of belatedness.” The affects of trauma on an author can manifest itself in their writing. Say for instance we learned that Emily Dickinson’s mother had killed herself in front of her, this traumatic experience would be influential on her writing and we could interpret her poems with this in mind. (Trauma does not stand so much on its own as it is linked to psychoanalysis. The unconscious desires, perhaps influenced by trauma, of an author are the true meanings underlying all of their work.)

The third approach of psychological criticism discussed in class is the cognitive approach. Whereas the psychoanalytic approach focused on the author and why they wrote what they wrote, the cognitive approach focuses on the reader and how their mind works while reading literature. This approach explains why humans associate certain mindsets with situations. The process is scientific in nature and draws evidence such as evolutionary findings to support its claim. The cognitive critic would read Dickinson’s poem, There’s a Certain Slant of Light, and focus on what mindsets the reader associates with each line and why they do so. Through an understanding of a cognitive approach on literary works such as Dickinson’s poetry the reader can reach a better understanding of the poem’s intellectual complexity and the logic behind how easily they can follow what is going on in the poems.

Resources: Dickinson’s poem: http://www.online-literature.com/dickins…

Dictionary of Literary Theory by David Macey

Trauma and Experience: Introduction by Cathy Caruth



Life and Career:

When he was young, Sigmund Freud’s family moved from Frieberg, Moravia to Vienna where he would spend most of his life. His parents taught him at home before entering him in Spurling Gymnasium, where he was first in his class and graduated Summa cum Laude.

After studying medicine at the University of Vienna, Freud worked and gained respect as a physician. Through his work with respected French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, Freud became fascinated with the emotional disorder known as hysteria. Later, Freud and his friend and mentor Dr. Josef Breuer introduced him to the case study of a patient known as Anna O., who was really a woman named Bertha Pappenheim. Her symptoms included a nervous cough, tactile anesthesia and paralysis. Over the course of her treatment, the woman recalled several traumatic experiences, which Freud and Breuer believed contributed to her illness.

The two physicians concluded that there was no organic cause for Anna O’s difficulties, but that having her talk about her experiences had a calming effect on the symptoms. Freud and Breuer published the work Studies in Hysteria in 1895. It was Bertha Pappenheim herself who referred to the treatment as “the talking cure.”

Later works include The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). These works became world famous, but Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages has long been a subject of criticism and debate. While his theories are often viewed with skepticism, Freud’s work continues to influence psychology and many other disciplines to this day.



Freud also influenced many other prominent psychologists, including his daughter Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Karen Horney, Alfred Alder, Erik Erikson, and Carl Jung.


Contributions to Psychology:

Regardless of the perception of Sigmund Freud’s theories, there is no question that he had an enormous impact on the field of psychology. His work supported the belief that not all mental illnesses have physiological causes and he also offered evidence that cultural differences have an impact on psychology and behavior. His work and writings contributed to our understanding of personality, clinical psychology, human development and abnormal psychology.


Selected Publications by Sigmund Freud:

  • (1895) Studies in Hysteria
  • (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams
  • (1901) The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
  • (1905) Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
  • (1905) Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria
  • (1923) The Ego and the Id
  • (1930) Civilization and its Discontents
  • (1939) Moses and Monotheism
  • Breger, Louis (2000). Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision–An Analytical Biography
  • Ferris, Paul (1999). Dr. Freud: A Life
  • Gay, Peter (1998). Freud : A Life for Our Time
  • Roazen, Paul (1992). Freud and His Followers


Biographies of Sigmund Freud:

During the twentieth century there was a shift away from the “who done it “genre to the “why did he do it”. Major writers have included Hermann Hess., Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

In literary criticism some critics have abandoned the formalistic/aesthetic approach because of their limitations and inadequacies in coming to terms with the major concerns of modern literature. Rather than being “Art for Arts sake”, modern literature tends to be more exploratory and didactic. The emphasis is more on character and motivation than on form and structure.

The psychological approach to literary criticism is very controversial and is easily  abused.

Some critics argue that it was already used by Aristotle in his Poetics in the 4th century B.C.,  when he defined tragedy as combining the emotions of pity and terror to produce “catharsis”. These critics argue that this is merely a sub—conscious emotional response to literature.



  1. Core theory — the unconscious aspects of the human psyche.

Most of our actions (mental processes) are motivated by psychic forces over which we have little control.

Mind is like an iceberg — its greatest weight and density lies below the surface.

Two kinds of unconsciousness:

  1. pre—conscious — latent not directly aware of something, however with effort. It can be retrieved.
  2. unconcious — something very difficult to revivte mocceesfully blocked or repressed. Comes out in perverse ways.

e.g. Novel/Movie — “Marnie”

2.   Second theory (now rejected by most psychologists including Carl Jung, his disciple).

“All human behaviour is ultimately motivated  by sexuality.”

3.   Freud’s Three Psychic Zones

a.   The  Id

— reservoir of libido

— primary source of all psychic energy

— functions to fulfil the primordial life principle

— our basic drives (S)

— pleasure principle

— no rational order/organisation/will

— impulse to obtain gratification of instinctual needs

— no regard for social conventions — asocial

— no values — good/evil amorphous/amoral

— source of all aggression desires

— lawless, self—destructive

— pre—Freudians called it the “devil” in man

b.     Ego

— regulating agency to curb the Id

— protects the individual and society

— rational, reasoning, logical

— partially conscious

— aware of reality

c.      Super Ego

— largely unconscious

— moral censoring agent

— conscience, self—image, pride

— moral restrictions or repression of Id

— blocks off or represses those drives which society regards as unacceptable

— operates on rewards and punishments

— an overactive Super Ego creates unconscious guilt (complex).

Healthy person has a well balanced Pyche, while an imbalance of any one force causes mental stress — neurosis — today of called a syndrome or a disorder.

Id                     pleasure principle  animals

Ego                  reality mankind

Super Ego      morality “angels”


Applications of Frued’s Theories

1.   Symbolism — most images interpreted in terms of sexuality.

a.   concave images (ponds, flowers, cups, vases, caves, hollows, tunnels)

— female or womb symbols

b.   long  (erect) images (towers, snakes, knives, swords, trees, poles, sky scrapers, missiles)

— male or phallic symbols

c.   activities (dancing riding, flying) symbols of sexual pleasure.

— Of ten pushed too far — Little Red Riding Hood

2.   Child Psychology

Infant and childhood are formative years a period of intense sexual development and awareness.

First five years children pass through several phases in erotic development.

1)     Oral

2)     Anal

3)     Genital

Frustration in the gratification of any of these: eating, elimination, or reproduction may result in an adult personality that is warped.

If a child’s development is arrested in any one of these phases, he may develop a “fixation”.


1)     Oral — premature weaning may result in cigarette smoking.

2)     Anal — overly strict toilet training — fastidious, fussy.

3)     Genital — close attachment to parent — may develop either an Oedipus or Electra Complex.


Psychological  Defence Mechanisms

Our ego is very delicate and fragile and so we often use ways and means to try to protect it.  In the face of confusion, disappointment, failure, conflict and frustration, our psyche needs help to cope. Without “psychological crutches” we become stressed or anxious. We can have three reactions to Anxiety or stress:

  1. Attack problem and develop solutions.
  2. Ignore the problem, hope it will go away.
  3. Defend ourselves (our ego, self esteem, image).

The fight or flight reaction.


Psychological Mechanisms

 I           SUBSTITUTIONCompensating

·        Overdoing one thing to cover up deficiencies in other areas.

·        Conversationalist — good talker — not a doer.

II          REPRESSION – Blocking

·        Try to forget failures or unfortunate incident.

·        We forget to perform unpleasant duties.

III        RATIONALISATION – Justifications

·        We substitute a “good reason” for an action rather than the real one.

·        Wishful thinking — not reasoning.

IV         REGRESSION – Reverting to former states.

·        Reverting to childish behaviour or habits.

·        Often covers up fact that we can not cope with problem.


·        Basic drives become expressed in socially accepted forms.

·        Hostility expressed in competitive sports.

·        A blood thirsty individual becomes a butcher.


·       Role-playing — we take on characteristics of a person we admire. A Hero—worship or modelling (apeing).


·        Protective shell.

·        Being aloof, distant, unconcerned, cold, “don’t  care”.

·        Self-sufficient, detached “cool”.

VIII      SCAPEGOATING – Justification

·        Blaming our own faults, deficiencies, inadequacies on others.


·        Trying to remain objective, analytical, untouched in an emotionally threatening event.

X          MALINGERING – A Psycho-somatic disorder.

·        Adjusting through injury.

·        Taking to your bed.

·        Having a headache.

·        Feeling sick to the stomach.

XI         AGGRESSION Reacting rather than responding to a situation.

·        You become overwhelmed by frustration and a sense of powerlessness or impotence to the extent that you react in a violent, vindictive and destructive manner.


In 1974 US newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Over the course of the next three months she warmed to their cause and embraced it; she slung an M1 carbine over her shoulder and pulled a bank robbery for them.

Hearst may be the classic example of the Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which hostages eventually identify with their captors.


A family member suggests that they all drive 53 miles to Abilene that night for dinner. One by one they agree. Great idea. They drive to Abilene; the meal sucks. And on the way home they all confide they actually didn’t want to go to Abilene in the first place.


Merits of Psychological Approach: 

In the right hands, this approach can be useful in understanding motivation and causality.  Psychoanalysis has helped us to understand human behaviour and many writers have explored this field to great advantage.

Freud’s contribution to the formative and impressionable childhood years has also assisted us in providing conditions to maximise children’s potential. 


Limitations of Psychological Approach:

While beneficial, we have to realise that Psychoanalysis alone will not lead to a full understanding of a work of art.  There are many other valid interpretations.



Electronic Sources:

http://awinlanguage.blogspot.com/2012/03/psychological-approach-to-analyze.html (Taken on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 15.10.)

http://blogs.dickinson.edu/anglesofliteraryapproach/category/psychological-criticism/ (Taken on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 15.15.)

http://home.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/spring97/litcrit.html (Taken on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 15.05.)

http://neboliterature.mrkdevelopment.com.au/topic-areas/critical-lit/Psychological-Approach-to-Literature (Taken on Tuesday, May 28, 2013 at 08.19.)


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